Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Best of Baltic Comics Magazine š! Issue 1 (2008)

kuš! and its various spin-offs; as seen on the magazine's website

kuš! (pronounced “kush”), "Latvia’s only comics magazine", was created to, in the words of its editors, "popularise comics in a country where comics are practically non-existent". Being a purpose that ATF holds close to our collective heart, we wholeheartedly support the kuš! team's fantastic efforts to provide a platform for the medium in their homeland. Following six successful issues of the magazine in Latvian (although some are available for purchase with English translation sheets), a smaller, more compact all-English spin-off was created with the appropriately truncated name of š! (as in "shh!").

Featuring talent from around the world, š! continues to be an excellent window into a wide range of comic artists that are seldom seen in the English-speaking market. So impressed are we with the pint-sized publication, that we've decided to dedicate a week to reviewing our favourite entries in the first five editions of the mini-anthology, starting with its debut "Green Issue".

BALTIC COMICS MAGAZINE š! #1: The Green Issue (November 2008)

Cover by TeER

Laying the groundwork for the new format, "The Green Issue" contains 48 pages of environmentally-conscious comics and showcases the spectacular variety of work the editors, David Schilter and Zane Zajančkauska, endeavor to include in the anthology. Featuring a diverse number of styles, the issue houses such content as: a human-serving fast food chain for animals, a philosophical cat, a paleontologist feminine hygiene product, an expressionistic adventurer and an autobiographical tale of teaching English in heavily-polluted Taiwan.

So, without any further ado, we encourage you to š! the hell up and enjoy the review. 

Huge, Green & Unmovable Animals, Ingrīda Pičukāne

Any comic that can boast a pink anthropomorphic sanitary towel as a protagonist is definitely worth a look, in my opinion. This particular tale, by Latvian Ingrīda Pičukāne, casts our feminine hygiene hero and diaper side-kick as palaeontologists in the 25th century. Following a map that lists such destinations as “Paper Hollow”, “Box Hill” and “Plastic Desert”, it soon becomes obvious that they are the inhabitants of a consumer-waste apocalypse. Residing in this post-cataclysmic world, these back-packing characters are on the hunt for remains of the past. The punchline? Rather than looking for Tyrannosaurus Rex or Triceratops, they celebrate finding something altogether different, and it's not necessarily human skeletons, as the reader might expect. 

Partly due to the amateurish visuals, Pičukāne manages to create a world that is funny yet bittersweet; the child-like drawings contrasting with the subject matter. The great irony of the piece is that maybe the world now has a better custodian in the form of humanity's refuse than it ever did in the hands of humans themselves.

Cold Drink, Joonas Sildre

Estonian creator Joonas Sildre creates a wordless black and white narrative that owes as much to expressionism as it does classic space-age adventure. Opening on a rain-drenched mountain range, the reader's focus is directed to a lone figure scaling the rock. Wearing a top-heavy be-domed hazmat/ astronaut-style suit, he battles the elements, finally encountering a human-made opening. Crawling through, he descends into a  pitch black environment with only his helmet's illuminative flashlight to guide him. Heading towards a distant sound (which turns out to be the white noise of an old radio) he eventually finds a chair, a fire extinguisher and a kettle, before locating the Holy Grail: a soda vending machine. The comic abruptly ends as he opens his helmet to take a swig of the carbonated liquid, showing a panel ambiguously filled with the same brush-strokes the artist uses to signify both the rain and the white noise.

Outside of outstanding visual design and construction, the core appeal of this story is the mysterious uncertainty of it all. Whilst the majority of comics in the issue feature more of a preachy tone, Sildre's wordless panels are slightly more open to interpretation. With no exposition offered whatsoever, it’s unclear whether the lone figure was purposely searching for this location, or even what his ultimate fate was. Is this some sort of future-world where an adventurer is hunting for relics from the past? Is he a lone survivor? Is there a polluted atmosphere outside of his helmet? Does the soda represent humanity's destructive attraction towards things that are bad for us and our environment? All that is certain is that this is a great comic that is extra effective due to the questions it chooses to leave, rather than the statements it makes.

A welcome shift of gear, following Joonas Sildre's heavily polysemous tale, is South African Nicolene Louw's  autobiographical account of her (mainly negative) time spent in Taiwan as an English teacher. The interesting thing about this one is that it acts as a reminder of the global nature of ecological issues. Tying together the  anecdotes of heat-induced hives, inability to purchase tampons, urban claustrophobia and natural disasters is the backdrop of American cultural imperialism and the strange hyper-reality of its cultural exports.

Louw's comic is particularly effective because, as the most personal of the pieces in the issue, it offers a humanising edge to the environmental theme. By refracting the problem through the lens of her own  experience, Taiwan has both an objective and subjective honesty about it that sets it apart from the other fictional and caricatured comics in  š! #1.

Notable mentions go to Oleg Tischenkov's The Cat (which achieves the impossible task of creating a feline-based comic strip that not only avoids being sickeningly cute but is also actually pretty thoughtful) and cover-artist TeER's ultra-stylized news-reel "vox pops" parody Environmental Poll , in which members of the public give their often-ignorant, self-centered two cents on such topics as "What do you think of Climate Protection?".

š! #1 is available now (along with all kinds of other good stuff) at the official kuš! webstore for either $5.00 or €3.50, depending on your preference. Please check back with us over the next few days to read our "best of" articles on issues 2-5. Until then, please remember to recycle. Everything except comics, that is. Everyone knows that comics should be bagged in pollution-creating plastic bags and stored in highly flammable cardboard long-boxes. Duh.


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